Cover image for The mistress : histories, myths and interpretations of the "other woman"
The mistress : histories, myths and interpretations of the "other woman"
Griffin, Victoria.
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Publication Information:
New York : Bloomsbury : Distributed to the trade by St. Martin's Press, 1999.
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vi, 320 pages ; 25 cm
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HQ806 .G75 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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As long as there is marriage, there will also be the Mistress. Why then, does our society still behave as if marital infidelity were some unfathomable aberration?

Mythology is rich with mistresses-- both divine and mortal--some who have played their roles cunningly and to perfection, and some who have destroyed themselves and all around them. Famous mistresses have not only graced literature but have written it. Courtesans have been a feature of royal courts throughout history. And, whether or not we admit it, or feign nave ignorance, mistresses are women we know, here and now.

Victoria Griffin, herself a mistress, brings her steady yet startling focus on the mistresses in history and culture, past and present: from Camille Claudel to Monica Lewinsky, from Madame de Pompadour to Simone de Beauvoir, from George Eliot to Pamela Harriman. It is a subject as rich and diverse as history itself, alive with memorable characters. The Mistress will provoke and delight in equal measure.

Author Notes

Victoria Griffin is a writer, poet, and translator living in London. This is her first book.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

Griffin, a writer, poet, translator, and mistress of an important British financier, has crafted a readable but uneven history of the institution of mistresses. Drawing on myth and fact, her examples attempt to explain the characteristics of the "mistress type," the relationship between husband and wife, and society's ideals of propriety and fidelity in marriage. Simultaneously, she uses the narrative as a personal examination of her notions about being a mistress. Consequently, readers are unable to tell what is serious psychohistorical research and what is colored by Griffin's own feelings and individual experiences. Too, Griffin does not include examples from non-Western cultures, such as the geisha. Footnoted sporadically, her narrative depends upon secondary texts and published letters and diaries. This is interesting reading for a general audience, but scholars and students should use the standard women's histories (such as Olwen Hufton's The Prospect Before Her, Knopf, 1996) or the numerous books that deal with the mistress in a certain era, place, or by type (e.g., royal, presidential).ÄJenny Lynn Presnell, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One WHAT IS A MISTRESS? We have mistresses for our enjoyment, concubines to serve our person, and wives for the bearing of legitimate offspring. Perhaps the first thing to notice about this famous dictum by the orator Demosthenes from the fourth century BC is the obvious one -- it's written by a man, and it's written in the language of power: `We have'. Not `There are' or `Women are', but `We have'. This, it can be inferred, is what men have done to women, classifying them into particular roles. There is no mention of women outside these roles, of women who exist for some other purpose than that of relating to men. Mistresses are to be enjoyed, concubines are to serve, wives are to bear legitimate offspring. Whether women enjoy any or all of these roles is not mentioned; women's feelings are irrelevant.     The second thing to notice is, of course, the actual division or `splitting'. Several twentieth-century writers have commented on this tendency of the image of woman to `split', to become divided into, for instance, virgin and whore, or `angel in the house' (as most notably portrayed by the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore) and `fallen woman'. In this case the split is threefold: mistresses are not wives, wives are not for enjoyment, mistresses and concubines do not provide legitimate offspring, and so on. Perhaps mistresses have a better time than concubines as they are there to do more than `serve'. And perhaps wives have a degree of respect -- but only as the bearers of legitimate offspring.     So one question is: do women fall naturally into these categories, or have they been placed there solely by men? I imagine it's a bit of both: men created the categories, and women slotted themselves into them. It's always hard when considering attitudes in patriarchal society to work out which came first -- attitudes or patriarchy -- they have a symbiotic relationship, feeding back and forth. And one can only view life and one's role from within the prevailing system. That system is one where men are in control and have been for centuries, millennia, and it has been argued that one way they have maintained that control is by this `splitting' of women, so that the female becomes less than whole and therefore never equal to the male. Eva Figes is not alone in ascribing this strategy to the fear of women by men, the fear of the oppressed by the oppressors: `... because man has refused to abandon an inch of ground more than necessary, having so much to lose, he has been afraid of the dormant power he has subdued, and recognized woman as profoundly dangerous.' The Oxford English Dictionary definition of `mistress' is: `A woman who illicitly occupies the place of wife'. A search under `mistress' in the British Library's computerised catalogues yields interesting results. Interspersed with books about the mistresses of famous men, or novels about mistresses, are memoirs of a rather raunchier sort ( Mistress of the Lash , for instance), alongside instruction manuals written by `mistresses' to their maidservants, and textbooks by biology mistresses. The consequences of ordering some of these books range from having to sit at a special table reserved for readers of pornography, with strict instructions not to leave the book unattended, in order to consult How to find and fascinate a mistress, and survive in spite of it all by Will Harvey (1972), which tells of the importance of simultaneous orgasms and categorises mistresses as Ladybugs or Honeybees, to the discovery that The Cardinal's Mistress is the title of a novel written by one Benito Mussolini, published in 1929. An Internet search yields thousands of entries, nearly all of which seem to be the electronic equivalent of cards placed in phone booths by dominatrixes.     The word `mistress', it was suggested on a radio programme recently, carries risqué connotations in a way that the more modern, neutral word `partner' doesn't. `Partner' tends in any case to refer to the other half of a couple, and not usually to the extra third of a threesome. Likewise `lover' or `girlfriend', though they could denote the possibility of an extant wife, do not necessarily do so. `Mistress', on the other hand, always sounds illicit, as well as rather luxurious. There are those who think of the word as old-fashioned, though I don't see why it should be considered to be any more out of date than `wife' or `husband'. In all three cases, the roles may have been modified in recent years, while the names remain the same. It has also been pointed out that there is no male equivalent of `mistress'.     Penelope Orth, in her book published in the early 1970s about contemporary American mistresses, draws up the following definition: `A mistress is a single woman, divorced, widowed, or never married, who is having an enduring affair with a married man who may support her but who today more frequently subsidises her or merely improves her standard of living. The three essential ingredients of a lover-mistress relationship are that it lasts, that marriage is not realistically expected, and that the man assumes some financial responsibility.' It is rather surprising that there should be this expectation of a financial element as recently as 1972; it certainly does not enter into my expectations as a mistress. (It was, however, a significant factor in a recent memoir by an ex-mistress, Dani Shapiro's Slow Motion . Orth, in what is a fairly perceptive and at times amusing book, draws up several categories of mistress, such as the Career Woman (who has no time for marriage so takes a married lover), the Assistant (who works for her lover), the One-Man Call Girl (which doesn't need explaining), and the Masochistic Mistress (who desperately wants to marry but has to set up scenarios to ensure she does not get what she wants). Such categories may be rather more fluid than Orth makes them out to be; possibly most mistresses have a bit of the masochist in them.     Wendy James and Susan Jane Kedgley use slightly different criteria: `A mistress by our definition is a woman with whom a married man has a parallel relationship, or a woman who, outside her own marriage, has a relationship with another man. All these illicit relationships -- i.e. based on adultery -- must be long-term and as a yardstick we chose one year as the minimum period of involvement.' There is no mention of any financial transaction in this -- British -- definition; indeed, James and Kedgley found their mistresses were on the whole quite averse to the idea of receiving financial support or gifts from their lovers, not wanting to view themselves as `kept' women or as falling into what they perceived as traditional mistress roles. They also emphasise that what distinguishes a `mistress relationship' from a casual extra-marital fling is that in the former the emotions are engaged: `A mistress relationship assumes an emotional relationship with all its concomitant involvement, responsibilities, feelings of guilt and dissembling.'     For my purposes, at its simplest, I take the word `mistress' to mean someone who is having an affair with a man who is married to someone else.     In earlier times -- no longer ago than the Victorian era -- a mistress could be any woman living with or having sexual relations with a man who was not married to her; he didn't need to be married to someone else for her to qualify for the title. So, for instance, Wilkie Collins had two mistresses, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd, though he was never married to anyone; likewise the unmarried composer Franz Liszt had mistresses. While accepting the term `mistress' for these women in the time when they lived, I would not now refer to a woman as a mistress if she were merely cohabiting with a man without having legally married him. On the other hand I might describe as a mistress a woman having an affair with an unmarried man who was nevertheless living, in an apparently committed relationship, with someone else. The relationship with the mistress is illicit in that the man is supposed to be being `faithful' to someone else. There may be a case for arguing that the relationship need not be heterosexual, that one could have lesbian `mistresses' in cases where a couple have pledged themselves to one another and then a third party moves in. But that is not an area which I will be examining. In some cases I have identified a mistress-type -- a woman whose way of loving makes her suitable to fulfil the role of mistress, though in strict terms that is not exactly what she is doing.     There is one further categorisation to be made, between those mistresses who are known about and acknowledged, and the (far greater) number of those who have to conduct their affairs in secret. The open ménage à trois can be very demanding on all its participants, but they have occasionally been known to work. But as long as `human kind cannot bear very much reality' the hidden liaison, with all its inherent deceptions of self and others, is likely to predominate over the open three- (or four- or more) some.     I have concentrated mainly on unmarried mistresses -- women for whom the relationship with a married lover is the principal relationship in their life. It is true that in certain historical categories, that of `royal mistress', for instance, the women in question were nearly always married -- partly because married women are less threatening than single ones, being less likely to want the upheaval in their own lives which exposure might bring, or to demand the lover divorce his wife and marry her instead. So when a whole category of mistresses has been married, I have included them, but I would not primarily define as `mistress' a woman who is also `wife'.     I used to think of myself as a feminist, albeit of a fairly mild variety. Since investigating my motivation as a mistress, and my place in a long tradition of mistresses, I am no longer sure it would be fair to do so. First, there is the obvious point that by engaging in affairs with married men, I am acting in a far from `sisterly' way towards other women. Then there is the collusion with Demosthenes, going along with -- in fact, supporting -- the idea that some women are to be wives, others mistresses, with the enjoyments of one denied to the other. There are likely to be some wives who will argue, and in some cases they may be right, that mistresses really want to be wives and are stealing, or rather borrowing, other women's husbands because they can't get one of their own. I don't think this is true in my case, nor in that of most of the women examined in this book. But self-deception runs deep in all of us, and there is nothing discreditable of which human beings are incapable.     Helen Fisher, writes that out of the 853 cultures on record only sixteen per cent prescribe monogamy, in which a man is permitted only one wife at a time. And it follows that it is only in that sixteen per cent of cultures that the concept of the mistress can make any sense at all. Polygamous societies may give rise to various grades of co-wives, but not to mistresses -- though women attempting to live as mistresses, or as wives of men who have mistresses, might learn from the rules of official polygamists: The Mormon system of polygamy certainly produced traumas of jealousy in some women and most women found the whole idea, when Joseph Smith originally introduced it, deeply shocking. However, some women did find it liberating ... The sheer mechanics of the large household where there were several wives made the expression of romantic love impractical, but even more simply the `harem' completely destroyed the idea that everybody had One True Love, which is the essence of the mythology of romantic love ... The Mormon women were also advised not to allow themselves to become emotionally dependent upon their husbands, because otherwise the polygamous life was impossible. Even though Salt Lake City was clearly a male world and the men got the best of the bargain (women were not allowed to have several husbands) it did prove to be liberating for many of the Mormon plural wives. Certainly the fact that Utah was easily the first state in America to give women the vote and that there were more professional women in Utah at the end of the 19th century than almost any other state says a good deal for the confidence and the autonomy that Mormonism gave to its women. Finally, a paradox lies at the heart of being a mistress: on the one hand the mistress seeks to live outside and undermine the institution of marriage; on the other, she is as subject to the institution as is the wife, being defined by it. Without marriage, there wouldn't be mistresses. As people continue to marry in large numbers, it is even possible that the demand for mistresses is rising. If one looks again at Demosthenes' dictum in the light of twentieth-century developments, one can perceive an interesting shift. The role of the wife, at least in Western culture, now encompasses far more than `the bearing of legitimate offspring'. Modern marriage attempts to be a partnership of equals and, in the struggle for her equality -- including, in many cases, the pursuit of a fulfilling career outside the home -- the contemporary wife has necessarily had to give up -- has to some extent and in many cases wanted to give up -- certain of her previous roles, not only that of continual and unavoidable motherhood, but also of playing the supporting role to her husband. A busy late-twentieth-century wife just does not have the time, even if she has the inclination, to listen to the tales of her husband's day, to provide him with the glass of wine, the soothing music, the sympathetic ear. Far less does she have the time to offer practical help. So who steps in to fill the breach? The mistress, of course. Witness the number of secretaries and personal assistants to, for instance, male politicians, who make that easy transition from help and mainstay in the office to emotional support and sexual partnership. Wives may find themselves paying dearly for their increased independence and their concomitant lack of time and energy for their husbands. I am not suggesting this is necessarily how it should be, but I am suggesting this is how it is. Maybe it is still true -- however unpalatable -- that no woman can be everything to a man. THE LURE OF FORBIDDEN FRUIT, OR WHY SOME WOMEN BECOME MISTRESSES Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. The Hebrew story of the Fall, as recounted here in Genesis Chapter 3, is now generally regarded -- except by extreme fundamentalists who misunderstand the meaning of the words `story' and `myth' -- as an aetiological myth; that is, it sets out to explain the way things are, to provide reasons for what is perceived as the human condition. One thing which needed to be explained was death, and so the story suggests that had the first man and woman not sinned, they would have lived for ever. But they disobeyed God, and so were thrown out of the Garden of Eden and became subject to hardship, disease and eventual death. Another thing to be explained was the position of women in relation to men: to the creators of this aetiological myth, the subservience of women was a `given', part of the natural order, so, rather than trying to correct the balance, they set out to explain the imbalance. They saw that women were not only subject to men, but had to suffer the pain and dangers of childbirth. If, as they had concluded, the unsatisfactory nature of human life with its inevitable end was the result of sin, then the fact that the lot of women was even worse than that of men suggested that woman must have either sinned worst, or first, or both. And so Eve gets most of the blame. She allowed herself to be tempted by the serpent, she was the first to bite the forbidden fruit, she gave it to the man to eat, she was the original sinner, it's her fault. Then, once this explanatory story had been told, it became the instrument for the continuing oppression of women. In the development and reinforcement of patriarchy, writers first describe how things are and this then has the effect of setting how things are in stone: it must be this way for a reason -- here's the reason -- so now things must be this way. It's a spiralling self-perpetuating process. Not only did the myth encourage man to go on punishing woman for what she was supposed to have done, but it also allowed him to externalise all the flaws and weaknesses in himself and make woman the embodiment of them, leaving himself strong and intact and morally superior. The dark side of man is offloaded on to woman. In Greek mythology a similar process happens with the figure of Pandora; like Eve, her curiosity and desire for knowledge -- and thereby power -- lead to her opening the forbidden box, and so letting evil flood into the world. Both these myths have been used to give women the salutary warnings to know their place, not to ask questions and to accept the way things are.     Tradition has it that sex came with the Fall. Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and it embarrassed them. There is no mention of procreation until after the Fall. Presumably either Adam and Eve would have lived for ever and so experienced no need for descendants, or the earth would have become further populated without the necessity for the sordid groping with which the Church Fathers equated the sexual act. At the Fall, Satan was supposed to have instructed Adam and Eve on how to copulate. And because without Eve, the woman, there wouldn't have been a Fall, she is held responsible for this introduction of sex into human life, and all man's ambivalent feelings about sexuality are thrust on to her. Woman is made to represent the lust man feels for her; the object of temptation becomes the cause. (This still goes on, particularly in certain fundamentalist traditions, with woman being made to cover herself because of man's inability to resist her.) `Eve was the original cause of all evil and, to the men of the Church, all women were her daughters, and therefore inheritors of her disgrace.' Eve the temptress, is seen in every woman, but particularly in the beautiful woman. And man fears her because she arouses his desire, and his body responds to her whether he wills it or not. His sexuality -- to be precise, his penis -- is the one area of himself which he cannot control, and so he must put the blame for this on woman. She has bewitched him.     The Church Fathers Origen and Tertullian, writing in the third century AD, both blamed women for luring Christian men into sexual indulgence which they might otherwise have been strong enough to resist. Women, Tertullian declared, are the devil's door: through them Satan creeps into men's hearts and minds and works his wiles for their spiritual destruction. Origen's condemnation of women was equally severe. He believed women to be more lustful than men and to be obsessed by sexual desire. And so it continued. `For the Fathers of the Church after Augustine, woman is the cause of the Fall, the wicked temptress, the accomplice of Satan, and the destroyer of mankind. The fury unleashed against Eve and all her kind is almost flattering, so exaggerated is the picture of women's fatal and all-powerful charms and men's incapacity to resist.' Carl Gustav Jung refers in his Symbols of Transformation to `the Jewish tradition that Adam, before he knew Eve, had a demon-wife called Lilith, with whom he strove for supremacy. But Lilith rose up into the air through the magic of God's name and hid herself in the sea. Adam forced her to come back with the help of three angels, whereupon Lilith changed into a nightmare or lamia who haunted pregnant women and kidnapped new-born infants.' The myth of Lilith arose through the attempt to reconcile the two conflicting Creation stories found in Genesis -- the first story in Genesis 1, where male and female are created equally and together, and the second story in Genesis 3, where the female is created out of part of the male's body, after and inferior to him. If these accounts are seen as referring to two separate events, rather than as two variant interpretations of one event, then the inference may be drawn that two females were created, the first equal and the second inferior to the male. Lilith, who retains traces of the Sumerian figure Lil, the bright Queen of Heaven, was, according to a Judaic text of the ninth or tenth century, the Alpha Bet Ben Sira, Adam's first female companion. She was the woman who claimed equality, epitomised by her refusal to allow Adam always to be the one on top during sex. For her presumption she was banished, into the borders of creation and human consciousness, returning at night to haunt the minds and bodies of men as they lie beside their docile wives, appearing in wet dreams to rob the wives of their husbands' seed, proving it is she -- the wild, untamed -- who has the power to capture the male imagination and sexual response.     Eve was then created as the second, subservient wife. There is a tradition (sometimes to be seen pictorially, as in a woodcut by Holzschmitt of 1470) that it was Lilith, disguised as a serpent, who persuaded Eve to taste the forbidden fruit, as an act of revenge and as a demonstration to God and humankind that what is forbidden is always the most tempting and cannot ultimately be resisted. By her interference Lilith wrecks the happiness of Adam and Eve, and achieves nothing more satisfactory for herself than bittersweet revenge to flavour her everlasting loneliness. To Eve she is a source of fascination, jealousy and fear; the two archetypal figures -- wife/mother and femme fatale -- forever circling the one man in a dance of mutual attraction and hatred, united in their opposition to the male, divided by their need and love of him. Both wonder at the other: to Lilith, Eve seems boring, conventional (after her one lapse in the Garden), yet also powerful and with hidden depths -- she has after all managed to hang on to her man, so is deserving of some respect; to Eve, Lilith seems irresponsible, feckless yet exciting, an ever-present threat to her own stability yet holding out a tantalising promise that there is more to life than tilling the earth and bringing forth children. Eve cannot quite believe that Lilith really enjoys her independence -- hence her deeply held and fearful conviction that all she really wants is to steal her husband. Lilith would indeed like to succeed in doing that, but more to prove her superior powers of seduction than because she really wants him back. Once she had made her point and had Adam in thrall, she would quickly tire of him. * * * The dangerous, bewitching female, forever posing her threat to the stability of the family and the indestructibility of the marriage bond, keeps reappearing in different, but always recognisable, guises. There are in Greek mythology, for instance, the Empusae, the children of Hecate, goddess of witches, who, disguised as beautiful maidens, suck the vital forces of men until they die. (What fear of women resides in the aftermath of the male orgasm, that wilting penis.) The femme fatale appears in Arthurian legend as the Loathly Damsel, becoming Cundrie in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival , and Kundry in Wagner's opera. In this role she bears a likeness to the sinner from St Luke's Gospel who washes the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair and who for centuries has been, probably erroneously, identified as Mary Magdalen. At times belief in and fear of this figure escape the bounds of myth and story: `In both orthodox and apocryphal literature, Lilith's shadow falls on women as far forward in time as the fifteenth century AD, when, in the same imagery as was employed for Lilith, thousands were accused of copulating with demons, killing infants and seducing men -- of being, in a word, witches.' The bewitching woman appears also as Shakespeare's Cleopatra; later manifestations include Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair , Rebecca West in Ibsen's Rosmersholm and Hilda in The Master Builder , Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Zola's Nana and Frank Wedekind's Lulu. And in the late twentieth century it is the shadow of Lilith in her role as baby-killer that is cast on women accused of murdering or abusing children (the vituperation meted out to them is always greater than in the case of their male counterparts), and echoes of Lilith-hatred can also be heard in the language of the more extreme anti-abortionists.     All these bewitching creatures are subsumed for Jung under the heading of `anima': `The nixie is an even more instinctive version of a magical feminine being whom I call the anima . She can also be a siren, melusina (mermaid), wood-nymph, Grace, or Erlking's daughter, or a lamia or succubus, who infatuates young men and sucks the life out of them.' What Jung called the anima was, he argues, projected by our primitive ancestors on to these mythological characters, but it is in our own unconscious that we now recognise her to reside. Jung generally perceives both positive and negative aspects in every symbol so that, while he asserts that the dangerous, taboo and magical anima may lead a man into a forbidden zone, he also suggests that it is precisely in this forbidden zone that salvation is to be found, just as the whole Christian saga of redemption could never have come about without the initial expulsion from Eden. Jung writes: The anima no longer crosses our path as a goddess, but, it may be, as an intimately personal misadventure, or perhaps as our best venture. When, for instance, a highly esteemed professor in his seventies abandons his family and runs off with a young red-headed actress, we know that the gods have claimed another victim ... Although she may be the chaotic urge to life, something strangely meaningful clings to her, a secret knowledge or hidden wisdom, which contrasts most curiously with her irrational, elfin nature. Denis de Rougemont, in Love in the Western World , puts forward the interesting thesis that we are all, and particularly those of us who go in for passionate, unhappy love, under the thrall of a renowned myth of courtly love, the Romance of Tristan . That `high tale of love and death' tells how on the voyage Tristan makes with Iseult, as he accompanies her back to the court of his uncle King Mark whom she is to marry, the pair are given to drink by mistake the love potion intended for the newly-weds. They are unable to do anything other than fall passionately in love. Nevertheless Tristan continues with his mission and duly hands Iseult over to the King, but the affair between himself and Iseult carries on just as passionately, if not more so, after the marriage. For all the joys they experience together, the lovers are doomed to unhappiness; condemned to death, they escape and live for a time as outlaws. They seem to come to their senses when the love potion wears off after its allotted span of three years; they seek King Mark's forgiveness and Iseult returns to the court. Yet their deliberately chosen separation seems at least in part a ploy to make their love still stronger.     The denouement, as expected, is tragic. Tristan has married another Iseult (of the White Hands), having been attracted to her largely because of her name. The first Iseult had earlier promised him that if ever he needed her, she would come. He falls ill and realises that only she can save him. He sends for her, and gives instructions that if she returns with his messenger on the ship, white sails are to be hoisted.     When the ship appears on the horizon, Tristan, who is too ill to leave his bed, asks his wife what colour the sails are. But she had overheard his earlier instruction and, realising what the white sails mean, is driven by jealousy to tell him that the sails are black. So Tristan, believing that his beloved Iseult has failed him at the last, falls back on his bed and dies. Then Iseult arrives, sees her dead lover, and dies herself.     There are now hundreds of versions of the Tristan legend in existence, and in the early years of this century the French scholar Joseph Bédier discovered that they can all be traced back to a single poem, now lost, which is the fountain-head of the whole tradition and the archetype of all Tristan stories. The unique fascination of the legend, says Alan Fedrick in the Introduction to his translation, seems to lie in the central theme: the unsought passion which draws Tristan and Iseult irresistibly together and which compels them to cut across the moral code and the social and family obligations which are the framework of their existence. In the earliest versions of the story the love potion comes into the narrative suddenly and unexpectedly, and its effect is to bind together two people who have no reason to like each other and whose relations have so far been more hostile than friendly.     De Rougemont declares that the description 'a high tale of love and death' sums up all that is popular, all that is universally moving, in European literature. Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed. What lyric poets have always been interested in is not the satisfaction of love, the contentment of the settled couple, but passion -- and passion means suffering. `The myth operates wherever passion is dreamed of as an ideal instead of being feared like a malignant fever; wherever its fatal character is welcomed, invoked, or imagined as a magnificent and desirable disaster instead of as simply a disaster.' He argues that what the Tristan legend is about may indeed be the parting of lovers, but a parting in the name of passion, for love of love itself. Parting will ensure the intensification and transfiguration of love, at the cost of happiness and even of the lovers' lives. Tristan and Iseult, he says, do not love one another; rather they love love, and what they therefore need is not one another's presence, but one another's absence.     De Rougemont concludes part of his argument by saying that, while the European middle classes are brought up to regard marriage with respect, all young people breathe in from the surrounding culture a romantic atmosphere in which passion is seen as the supreme test and it is accepted that nobody has really lived till he or she has `been through it'. Passion and marriage, he declares, are essentially irreconcilable. Their origins and ends make them mutually exclusive. Furthermore, `[Iseult] typifies the woman a man does not marry; for once she became his wife she would no longer be what she is, and he would no longer love her.' He states his reasons for his concentration on this myth as follows: `To raise up the myth of passion in its primitive and sacred vigour and in its monumental integrity, as a salutary comment upon our tortuous connivances and inability to choose boldly between the Norm of Day and the Passion of Night -- such is my first purpose ... And what I aim at is to bring the reader to the point of declaring frankly either that "That is what I wanted!" or else "God forbid!"'     In answer to de Rougemont's challenge, I find myself declaring: `That is what I wanted!' -- passion, the transfiguring torment, the wholly absorbing, wild delights of love, all the more delightful for their transience, their hiddenness, their breaking of moral codes. Tristan is a tale of people like me, full of well-managed deceit, with a hero and heroine who simultaneously believe themselves to be in the wrong, yet also right, and that somehow God is on their side, their love being greater and of more transcendent value than the social conventions they break. `Of course it would be going too far to suggest that a majority of people today are a prey to Tristan's frenzy. Few are capable of the thirst that would cause them to drink the love-potion, and still fewer are being elected to succumb to the archetypal anguish. But they are all, or nearly all, dreaming about it, or else have mused upon it.' I would rather do it than dream about it. Or so I think. `What is forbidden is desirable ... breaking taboos can also be attractive in and of itself; the breaking sometimes is at least as attractive as the act involved, because more happens than the sex.' The mistress may well identify with what Sallie Tisdale says here in Talk Dirty to Me , with the idea that sex is only really interesting if it is forbidden; it is the illicit, the hidden, the wicked which stimulates. There's nothing exciting about sex if you're supposed to be doing it. Or as Erica Jong puts it: `Sex, by definition, is something you have with someone other than a spouse ... Call it conjugal anything and the mystery withers. Sex has mystery, magic, a hint of the forbidden.' The half-hidden desire to do something of which the world -- that is, conventional society, the upholders of law and order, other women, the father (in the sense of an archetypal image of fatherhood), maybe even God -- disapproves, implies that disapproval itself is desired. Disapproval, which may result in exposure and humiliation, will simultaneously represent triumph over the world of convention and the undifferentiated masses. Even as I write this, I recognise it doesn't make much rational sense, that it's probably immature -- the little girl seeking to draw attention to herself -- and may ultimately be self-destructive, about as satisfactory as suffering from an eating disorder or a tendency to cut one's arms. But such things as the desire for punishment, for discovery, are in any case part of the fantasy world associated with sex. The mistress may have no real desire for her affair to be discovered, but she may like to imagine a dramatic denouement.     Sigmund Freud's identification of what he terms `moral masochism' gives weight to the idea that there is a link between desiring what is forbidden and desiring punishment -- at least in fantasy -- that in fact the motivation to do the forbidden thing is the desire for punishment: ... masochism creates a temptation to perform `sinful' actions, which must then be expiated by the reproaches of the sadistic conscience (as is exemplified in so many Russian character-types) or by chastisement from the great parental power of Destiny. In order to provoke punishment from this last representative of the parents, the masochist must do what is inexpedient, must act against his own interests, must ruin the prospects which open out to him in the real world and must, perhaps, destroy his own real existence. This can become such an obsession that the unforbidden, the socially sanctioned, that which carries no threat of exposure, consequent humiliation and punishment cannot, act as an erotic stimulant and cannot provide the impetus for the experience of falling in love. This attitude of mind may also be a way of warding off true intimacy, in that any persistent fantasy may act as a barrier through which no partner can penetrate. So the mistress, identifying herself with Lilith rather than with Eve (though she joins with Eve in her desire to taste the forbidden fruit) and caught up in the tumultuous and fatal passion of Tristan and Iseult, forever lures man out of the realm of the conventional and socially acceptable into the forbidden zone, out of the Garden of Eden and through the devil's door. Perhaps. She does this partly because she's addicted to it herself and loves to court disaster, partly because it's her role, anima-like, to lead the man out of innocence into deeper self-knowledge -- and partly for none of these highfalutin reasons but because she feels like it, or falls suddenly, inexplicably and inappropriately in love, or just wants to add to her score. Or else she thinks this time it'll be different and he'll leave his wife. There is somewhere in the whole mistress business the desire to pit oneself against everyone else, to test the strength of one's seductive powers -- can I wrest him from his old life? (The answer in nearly every case is `No'.)     According to Jung, women are in danger of four kinds of mother-complex -- maternal hypertrophy, Eros hypertrophy, identification with the mother or resistance to the mother -- and all of these are the results of overconcentration on the female parent. The Eros hypertrophy, or `overdevelopment of Eros', Jung argues, ... almost invariably leads to an unconscious incestuous relationship with the father ... Jealousy of the mother and the desire to outdo her become the leitmotifs of subsequent undertakings, which are often disastrous. A woman of this type loves romantic and sensational episodes for their own sake, and is interested in married men, less for themselves than for the fact that they are married and so give her an opportunity to wreck a marriage, that being the whole point of her manoeuvre. Once the goal is attained, her interest evaporates for lack of any maternal instinct, and then it will be someone else's turn. Though I have no recollection from my childhood of an `overconcentration on the female parent', much of Jung's description of symptoms rings remarkably true, even though I tell myself I don't really want to wreck marriages. It is also very noticeable that a sizeable proportion of the mistresses and mistress-types considered in this book had either very close or problematic relationships with their fathers, and it seems entirely feasible that they were unconsciously motivated by `jealousy of the mother and the desire to outdo her'. Some form of Oedipus complex -- the desire to oust the mother in order to enjoy an exclusive relationship with the father -- does seem to come into play in a large number of women who become, or have become, mistresses. Wendy James and Susan Jane Kedgley throw an interesting light on one thing which may be happening here: Because of the uncertainty of the relationship she has with her lover, a mistress can find herself re-creating that stage of adolescence where she becomes aware of having to deserve love. She plays out the game which she has learnt from her father -- fulfil my expectations and I will love you. This fatherly love, unlike the unconditional motherly love, relies on being loved because of one's merits. In the mistress, as in the child, it causes doubts, fears: if I do not please him perhaps love will disappear. Is it possible, to take this a step further, that women who in their childhood felt they had to earn their father's love are more likely to end up as mistresses, in another situation where the perception on the part of the woman is that if she does not continue to earn his love, the lover will leave? Whereas wives who, from the mistress's point of view, seem to take their husbands for granted and do not make the same effort to 'earn' love, experienced more unconditional fatherly love in their childhood? Obviously this is an enormous generalisation to which there are bound to be many exceptions, but I think there may be something in it all the same.     Jung's identification of the type of woman characterised by resistance to the mother also seems apposite: `The motto of this type is: Anything, so long as it is not like Mother!' Resistance to the mother can manifest as resistance to everything connected with her (as archetype rather than individual) -- family, convention, society, any form of `belonging', in fact -- as well as towards mother as matter . (In me this seems to manifest as antipathy towards gardening, `grown-up' cooking, house ownership -- in short, everything wives and mothers are supposed to do.) Of course, despite these resonances I feel with Jung's typologies, it may all be the other way round. Rather than being a mistress because I have a negative mother complex, I may be anti-family because I am a mistress. Having always, or nearly always, formed `unsuitable' and secret relationships, I have resented and feared the (my) family's power to penetrate my secrets and make demands which conflict with my freedom. Copyright © 1999 Victoria Griffin. All rights reserved.